Day 5 the canals are
running oUt of water
Riding on the flat - and practically the whole of this route is flat - and with a daily target of 100 miles, I get a reasonable speed on level 1 and have very little impact on the battery. The support from the motor is so gentle that sometimes it is just a slight whirr that lets you know it’s giving you a helping hand. But I find that if I practice a really good round stroke, not putting excessive pressure at any part of the cycle, I can stop the motor kicking in. Each time I hear a whirr I know I’ve done a bad stroke. When you move up to level 3 there’s no such subtlety- it gives you a really good pull until you get over the 15.5mph limit.
At Port de Decize, which is a mooring spot for canal craft, I chat to chap from Salisbury who, now retired, spends a lot of his time in his boat on canals across Europe. I’m wearing my Brompton T shirt and he comes over to me to explain that he was a friend of the late Julian Vereker who started Naim Audio but was also an early investor in Andrew Ritchie and his newly founded Brompton bicycle company. Small world!
He also tells me that he’s been holed up at Decize for several weeks and is about to go back the UK because the water in a lot of the canals is too low for navigation. Some were closed, putting a stop to his sort of long distance cruising. The lack of rain that even the Loire (see pic below) is running low.
He also described how he was able to use the rest of the European network of canals. I hadn’t realised before how connected the waterways were. It’s no wonder the British never quite felt a member of the club.
Day 4 joan of arc anD the english
“Of the love or hatred God has for the English, I know nothing, but I do know that they will all be thrown out of France, except those who die there,” said Joan of Arc. I felt it appropriate that when I cycled into Orleans, from where the Maid caused so many problems for Henry v, I rode across the Pont de l’Europe, an elegant bow-spring arch designed by Santiago Calatrava (a Spanish architect/engineer who practices out of Switzerland and does OK without being in the EU.) which celebrates the European adventure.
The Maid of Orleans turned the tide on the English in the 100 years war which was all about how much of France English kings controlled. One might see this as a example of what some might see as a centuries old legacy of hate, but I prefer to view as an intertwining of cultures that we throw away at our peril. It’s funny that ‘this sceptre’d isle’ which I imagine is now a Brexiteer slogan is from Richard II, who as well as being King of England was also Richard of Bordeaux.
A lot of the riding today (101 miles) was along the top of high berms that run alongside the Loire to contain it in the event of flooding. It’s a bit like the Greenway at Stratford but 500kms long! It’s quite boring to ride but gave me time to think about the different approaches we have with the French about infrastructure. They just get on and do it, whether by Royal decree or orders from Napoleon. Whereas we faff about - as shown by the announcement today that there will be a review of HS2. After the Great Fire, the King had a plan for rebuilding the City, but the merchants overruled him and wanted to get back to business without waiting for a plan. When the French built their canals they were wide, grand and with Royal approval and they have been publicly maintained ever since. Ours were commercial enterprises built tightly to the dimensions of the narrow boat. When the trains made them redundant they were left to fall apart. They were rescued by volunteers and are now run by a charity.
I’m not sure which system if best. The French way of doing things have a grandeur we lack, but our way is more efficient and responsive to change. To survive the self inflicted trauma of Brexit, probably our way is best.
I ended the day in a small town, which I won’t name; I don’t want to be cruel. I had booked a flat through Air BnB because it was the only accommodation available. I asked a neighbour if there was somewhere I could buy food. No, he said, she won’t be open until September. Now I understand most things close down in France in August - but the only food shop in the village? Where could I eat? There’s a take way pizza place he said. I went to get cash from the ATM. A Credit Agricole sign covered the hole in the wall and said that the supply of cash had been terminated for the foreseeable future. I went for a walk and checked out the pizzeria, aiming to return shortly. I found one other open shop, a Boulangerie Artisanale, with a smart logo and tasty looking fare. The young propriétaire responded to my halting French in fluent English. I wanted ask her what brought her and, I presumed from the sign, her husband, to this one horse town. But another customer beckoned and I missed my chance. I wandered back to the pizzeria only to find that at 8.00 pm it had shut up shop! Further on I found a small restaurant that was still serving. I ordered a pizza which turned out to be the most disgusting I have ever eaten. Whatever has happened to the home of the gastronome? To make things worse the AirBnB flat was one of the most sordid places I have ever stayed in.
But more tomorrow about the French service culture!
Day three - saumur to blois
In the days when I was publishing Blueprint our offices were just off Marylebone High Street which was then a bit of a dump. The first sign of its revival was the opening of the Villandry restaurant by Jean-Charles Carrarini. He named it after the vegetable garden in the eponymous Château.
J-C represented all that was good about our increasingly close links with Europe at the time and the impact that was having on our taste buds. The food was prepared by his wife Roz: simple, straight forward, fresh salads with delicious dressing, good quality meat cooked with no fuss, cheeses to die for. We ate there all the time.
I am from a generation where as children spaghetti came from a tin, avocados and yoghurt were unheard of. Europe broadened our horizons.
I didn’t manage to visit the vegetable garden, I had a hundred miles to ride, but I looked over the hedge and said thank you to J-C.
The day had started well. The rain had gone and the early morning ride out of Saumur was staggeringly beautiful. I cycled through forests where a deer leapt out in front of me and an owl led me down a dark tunnel of trees. The River Loire, my constant companion, which at Nantes was rather wide and dull became more interesting with weirs and boats and wild life. For a few hours I was on my own, but as the day wore on more and more panniered long distance riders passed by, and they were joined by an encouraging number of local French families making use of their section of the velo route. Everybody acknowledged each other with a ‘bon jour’, which was nice.
The Brompton Electric continues to perform well. I set the dial at 2 out of the three levels of power right at the start and that let me do just on 40 miles on the flat before I had to change the battery. I dropped back to 1 for most of the next 59 miles - which were a bit hillier - and got to Blois just as the second battery ran out. I did get a puncture though; or rather I think the inner tube was faulty. Bromptons are a bit trickier than road bikes with their quick release wheels, but I managed to replace the inner tube in reasonable time.
The total ride was 99.14 miles, according to Garmin, and I arrived in Blois in time to take look at the Château. I was keen to see at the spiral staircase which was featured in Nicholas Pevsner’s ‘An Outline of European Architecture’. In my day this was at the top of the reading list for A Level Art and Architecture. Architecturally we owe most of what we have done in the past to Europe whether Gothic ( I had really wanted to get to Cluny, but couldn’t fit it into the route), Renaissance or Modernist. Pevsner discussed architecture as a European and unifying culture. How sad he would be at the current turn of events.
Day 2 from Nantes to saumur
Route 6 is well signposted and seems to put a sign just when you’re wondering if you’re still on the right track. Even so, sometime after Angers I lost it and consulted Mr Google instead - which was a disaster. He took me through tracks that were so narrow that the brambles ripped my skin, nettles stung my legs and dumped me on the wrong side of a recently ploughed field. The clay soil stuck to my cleats and to the tyres of the laden Brommy. I took a route on roads instead which was much more pleasant. The sun had come out and I remembered how empty the French countryside is. There was little traffic and the villages were devoid of people.
Through all the different conditions the electric bike performed admirably. I set it at lowest power - 1 - in the morning which was largely flat. It gave a little push when starting off and when I needed to up the speed a bit. I did that for 60 miles and there were still two of the five lights on that show how much battery you have left so I moved the power up to 2 which lasted for about another ten miles until I changed the battery. With only 30 mile to go I switched to 3 - maximum power! I was flying. A great finish. None of that how-long-before-I-can-get-beer feeling as the last few miles tick by. My legs felt good; the only discomfort- apart from bramble-induced bloody arms - were in my biceps, I presume because of the different riding position of the Brompton. I’ve only spent that amount of time in the saddle before on a road bike.
I’m staying the night in Saumur, a rather beautiful town overlooking the Loire - the views from the hotel terrace make the effort of getting here worthwhile. My room luckily had a commodious shower, so I was able to wash the mud of the day off the bike and my kit. The forecast says that’s the end of the rain, better riding conditions tomorrow. Next stop Blois, 132km away.
Le grand depart - au revoir EU
I learnt yesterday that my baby granddaughter had received her French passport. It made me want to cry. It was great news, of course, her dual nationality rightly reflects her parentage and it gives her a real benefit in a post Brexit world; but it is a tragedy too as the madness of our departure from the European Union impacts on our family in a very powerful way.
The news came as I was packing to cycle across France to mark this most momentous event. ‘Le grand départ - #aurevoirEU’ was intended as a week of contemplation of the mess we are in and what will be lost once our ties with the continent are rent asunder.
I’ve been planning the ride for ages, but the news about the passport gives it greater poignancy.
My route is from Nantes to Besancon. I’ve ridden north/south lots of times and thought west to east would make a healthy change, a decision reinforced by a desire to try out one of the dozen EuroVelo routes that criss cross the continent. EuroVelo 6 seemed particularly attractive as it follows the route of the Loire, that most romantic of gallic waterways. It continues all the way to the Black Sea, but I haven’t got time to do all that.
It seemed a good idea to take the train to Nantes which led to a decision to use my Brompton instead of a road bike since Eurostar don’t like big bikes and the route is pretty flat and easy going.
News that Brompton Junction at White City were renting out electric foldables gave me the idea of trying out a new toy, but to my disappointment they hadn’t got the system up and running yet. Luckily, I was in conversation with Christina Lindquist, head of marketing at Brompton, about the Car Free Day Summit in September, where both I and Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams are speaking, and she kindly offered to loan me one.
I’m a big fan of Brompton anyway. I’ve been riding one for 15 years or so. I love their pragmatic British design, their convenience, their role in promoting more active travel and the fact that they are made in London. But electric Bromptons are something different. Suddenly the wind seems always at your back, you fly along as though a kind companion is giving your seat a friendly push. Since my journey requires a week of 150km a day, electric seemed a relaxed way to go.
News published last week that people riding pedal-assisted electrics, as opposed to ones with direct drive motors, maintained high levels of fitness was reassuring since I am preparing for a charity ride from Glasgow to London in aid of the Architects Benevolent Society in September. As a veteran cyclist I’m also interested in the impact on health of increasing bicycle usage among members of my generation. Pedalecs are really god for that.
I briefly flirted with the idea of flying to Nantes via EasyJet to save a few hours, but in the nick of time read some small print that said they wouldn’t take electrics. So I left on the 7.52 from St Pancras this morning but not without incident. I had foolishly imagined that a folded Brompton would be acceptable on Eurostar, as it is these days in most civilised establishments. A quick google would have disabused me of this view, as did the curt Eurostar staffer ‘No bag and you don’t get on the train.’ Luckily the lost property office at St Pancras, who maintain a supply of various bag sizes for ill prepared travellers like me, had one big enough to cover the bike to the guard’s satisfaction. Such a nuisance as I’ll have to carry the bag all the way to Besancon if I’m going to be allowed back on Eurostar at the end of the week.
The Eurostar booking gives me just half and hour to get from Gare du Nord to Montparnasse station. In spite of pouring rain the bike does a great job weaving through the traffic and I arrive in the nick of time. The only problem is that platform 2 is not where you might expect it to be - ie two along from platform four. It’s only when you get to where any rational person would imagine it to be that a sign tells you it is 10 minutes walk in the opposite direction. I run, climb escalators that aren’t working (an electric Brompton with a spare battery is a hell of a lot heavier than I’m used to) and arrive just as the gates are closing. My romantic view of la vie francaise is fading already.
My mood is improved by a very helpful station master who admires the bike “Ils sont tres vite, ne sont-ils pas?” “Pas assez vite” I reply ruefully. He tries to change my ticket at a machine with no luck and directs me to a packed ticket hall. After half an hour my number is called. The man at the desk is very sympathetic, replaces my ticket and books me on the next train at no charge. Things are looking up. I treat myself to a packet of peanut M&Ms and sit back to enjoy the view of the French countryside passing at grande vitesse.
I arrive in Nantes but Google is crap at finding my hotel so I enjoy a ride around the city enjoying the excellent conditions for cycling. I spoke at the Velocity conference here a few years ago and the infrastructure was good then. they seem to have added to it considerably since with some nice shared spaces. I’ll post a video when I have a chance to edit it.
Tomorrow I’m off to Saumur, 140km along the much vaunted VeloRoute 6.